Father of All Evil

Part IV

"Xena!" She yelled as she burst through the doors. 
The warrior looked up and questioning blue eyes stared at her. 
"There's an army moving in from the south." Gabrielle breathed, as she pulled up next to the warrior, breathing heavily. 
Xena's brows frowned, then she looked up as another form entered the square, one she recognized as one of the scouts Alexander had sent to his outposts. "Where from?" She directed at the boy, who now stopped next to her as well. 
"I don't know Xena. I didn't recognize the colors."
Xena nodded softly. "All right" She said softly. Then raised her voice. "Par!" 
The lieutenant came running up. "Yeah?"
"Get a small mounted force organized. Thirty riders." Another yell. "Alaran!" The man immediately walked over. "Get another four hundred men organized. Keep them here, until I send a messenger to call for backup."
Alaran nodded, then took of, screaming orders at his men. 
Gabrielle placed a hand on the messengers shoulder. "Go inform Alex." The scout nodded and ran off towards the castle. 

Xena let out a high pitched whistle, and then a slightly lower one. Far in the distance in one of the meadows two heads looked up, then there was the slowly rising thundering of hooves. Argo screeched to a halt beside her rider and Chilon pulled up next to her slowly after, snorting in excitement. 

Moments later thirty men were saddled up. Xena pulled herself up and swung her leg over the palomino's back and seated herself. She watched Gabrielle do the same, then gave the signal to move out. The thirty thundered out of the square, towards the south. 

Gabrielle increased the black stallions speed until it met up with the golden horse galloping at a high pace. "What do you think this is about?" She managed above the thumping of hooves hitting dirt. 
"Don't know. Might be good, might be bad, but I'm not taking any chances"
Gabrielle nodded softly, then watched as the dark head beside her shot up as they entered a clearing, focusing on something in the distance. A large mass of men and horses was moving towards them. Xena lifted a hand and slowed down until they came to a full stop. 
Gabrielle peered in the distance and could now make out the bright yellow flag with blue edges. She saw Xena smile as they slowly let the army approach. 

Xena lifted herself out of the saddle and jumped off, then slowly started walking towards the other army.. 
Gabrielle frowned, but said nothing and waited for what was going to happen. 
The commander of the opposite army pulled to a halt as well, then moved forward alone, walking towards Xena. After a few more paces in complete silence, they were face to face. 

"Esta" Xena started, then a huge smile crossed her face. "It has been way to long."
The commander chuckled. "Most certainly has been." She said as she gave the warrior's arm a firm grasp. 

They both laughed until there was a clearing of the throat coming from behind the warrior. Xena looked up to see questioning eyes gazing down on her from Gabrielle's still saddled position. She smiled apologetically. "Sorry." She then turned to the other woman. "Esta, this is my friend Gabrielle. Gabrielle, this is Esta, commander of the Athenian forces and an old friend of mine." 
Gabrielle jumped off Chilon, then walked over to the Athenian commander and shook the woman's hand. 
"Nice to meet you" Esta smiled. "So this is the famous Gabrielle huh?" 
Gabrielle frowned. "Famous?" 
Xena shot a dangerous look at Esta, but the woman ignored it. "Oh yeah, Xena told me about you last time we met. That was quite a while ago though about 4 years, right Xena?" 
"Yeah." Xena managed between gritted teeth. 
"Oeh, interesting" Gabrielle's attention was immediately caught and a wicked grin crossed her face. She leaned in closer to the commander "We'll talk, right?" 
"You betcha" Was the reassuring answer as the two shared conspiritual smiles. 
Xena sighed. "O boy" She muttered under her breath, then walked back to Argo and pulled herself up. "Come on you two, enough with the chit-chat already. Let's get going." 
Gabrielle whistled for Chilon, who had trotted off, then saddled herself as well and caught up to the warrior. She cast a glance at the warrior, grinning wickedly. Xena rolled her eyes but didn't say anything, except for yelling a 'move out' to the troops. 

A moment later Esta caught up with the two, now riding a beautiful white horse. She started pacing on the other side of Xena. "So Xe, are you running this whole thing again?" 
Xena shook her head. "Nope" 
Esta took on a surprised look. "You're not?" 
"He is." 
Esta looked up. "Who's" But her question got interrupted by a thundering of hooves as a large gray horse thundered into the clearing. A young man was seated on it's back, dressed in a plain tunic with a sword strapped across his back. Esta let out a low whistle. "Not bad for a youngster." She commented. A short silence as the form in the distance focused his attention on them and assessed the situation, then started trotting over to them.. "He looks familiar." 
Xena nodded. "He's Phillip's boy" 
"Little Alex?" Esta shook her head in amazement. "You gotta be kidding." 
"Wow He didn't turn out too bad, now did he?" 
"He's a natural" Xena commented, then turned her attention to the now very close king. "Hi Alex. Sorry about the false alarm." 

Alexander waved her off, the slowly pulled into a halt as they came closer and noticed the unfamiliar form riding beside his friends. A light blond eyebrow edged up. Esta slightly bowed her head towards the young king. "Sorry about the commotion king Alexander." 
Alex nodded softly. "And you are?" 
"Esta of Athens. I bring a message to you from the Athenian counsel.." Esta stated, raising her hand to show the ring with the Athenian emblem on it, allowing her to speak for the Athenian people. "The counsel was happy to hear of the plans for your quest and is more then willing to support you in your efforts. A thousand well trained soldiers are yours to command." 
Alexander's eyes widened. "A thousand?" 
Esta smiled. "Yep, I brought the first hundred with me here today, the rest is moving a bit slower because of the three catapults they're accompanying as well as some more supplies and extra weapons." 
"That is incredible." The young king breathed, then slapped Xena across the shoulders with an air of excitement. "Isn't that great!" 
Xena chuckled. "Sure Alex" She then turned to Esta. "Thanks." 
The commander smiled. "Don't thank me, it was the counsel who decided." 
"Yeah, but I'm guessing you had your say in the whole thing, right?" 
Esta smiled wickedly. "Sorta" 
Xena chuckled and patted her friend on the shoulder as they continued their ride back into Pella. 

The new forces quickly settled in and as Alexander arranged some details Esta insisted that they'd go out for a drink to celebrate. Xena wanted to help Alex do some planning and promised to stop by later, so Gabrielle and Esta made their way to the small inn by themselves. Gabrielle chuckled softly and slightly shook her head. "Another old friend of Xena's huh?" 
"Met a lot of those lately have you?" Gabrielle nodded. "Well, you know Xena not much of a talker." 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Don't I know it." 
Esta chuckled softly. "So you wanna hear the whole story huh?" 
Gabrielle looked up and grinned "Is it that obvious?" 
"Yep" A chuckle. 

"Well" Esta was quiet a moment searching for a place to start. "In Athens, we didn't get a lot of warning before the Persians came. I mean, we'd heard, but they were moving so much faster than expected We were completely unprepared. The Persians basically marched in to the city and the only thing that was left for us to do was to make a stand on the Acropolis. So we did For days on end thousands and thousands of Persians were swarming around the acropolis, attacking it any way they could. Catapults completely destroyed the Parthenon." Esta shook her head softly. "Anyway, this went on for many days, right Then, on the tenth day of the siege, the left flank of the Persian attack suddenly falls quiet. So, I, me being a young lieutenant at the time, decide to peek out. Sticking my head over the walls I see this group of warriors slamming their way into the city. Persians were flying all over the place, I can tell ya. And at the head, creating a hole in the defense of a ten thousand men Persian army with ease is this dark-haired, leather clad warrior woman." 
Gabrielle silently shook her head and mumbled a soft 'show off' 
"Gods was she ever and she's so damn good at it too So, she storms into the city and immediately puts Phillips in control. Now the commander at first wasn't too happy about that, but Xena just peered at him with those blue eyes of hers and he was scared shitless. Everybody in the army was in complete adoration of her. Including me. I'd follow her around whole days long, to her obvious irritation. But she was too busy to tell me off. Too busy trying to save the city. 

But there was nothing to be saved anymore. The city was lost. They had long discussions with the general and higher ranking officers on what to do Then all of a sudden, in the middle of the day, this Elisboy jumps down and starts walking towards the Persian base" 
Esta looked up. "I guess you probably heard that part, right?"
Gabrielle nodded as they arrived at the inn. She pushed the door open, then guided Esta in. They ordered some ale at the counter, then picked a table in one of the far corners. Gabrielle motioned the woman to go on. 
"Oh right Uhm Oh yeah, Elis. Well, after he died, Xena went berserk. She was yelling and screaming for days. Until she headed out one night. I saw her leave 

"Hey Xena!" A voice hissed from behind her. 
Xena turned around to watch a woman, not much younger than herself, come running over. "What do ya want?" She hissed back in an annoyed voice 
"Where are you going?" 
"Out" The warrior muttered, then turned and headed towards the gates again. 
Xena took a deep breath to restrain herself from cutting this young thing's head off. Then she turned around in one smooth motion, bringing the woman to a sudden halt. "Do you wanna die?" 
"Uhm no" 
"Then shut up and go back to your post and stay there." 
"Just do it!" The warrior snarled, then her face changed slowly. "And tell Phillip tell him I'm sorry." 
Xena then faced away. The woman was quiet for a moment, then uttered in a whisper. "Can I come?" 
"Can I come?"
The woman looked up. "He killed my parents I have a right to" 
Xena looked at her for a long moment. "I'll avenge them for you." She said, then paced off towards the enemy camp. 

"Well, I thought about the whole thing for a while, then decided to tell Phillip. At the time when he and his followers had gotten down screams could be heard already from the enemy compound. Elis' body had disappeared from the flagpole it'd been hanging from. I heard Phillip breathing out an "I can't believe it" when there suddenly was this thundering battle cry and Xena shot over the walls, a limp body lying across her shoulder. Phillip started yelling out orders. The army went outside to give backup to the completely exhausted Xena." 

Xena threw herself through the doors of the Athenian settlement and just sagged on the floor, dropping Elis' body beside her. She stared into the blood streaked brown eyes for a moment, then slowly closed the eyelids. The men around her started cheering and the circle around her closed in until 
Phillip jumped in. "Give her some space!" He knelt down beside her slowly. "Xena? Xena, are you OK?" 
Bright blue eyes peeked open and looked at him intensely. "I killed them Phillip, I killed a lot of them. He he is" she gazed at the quiet body beside her, then closed her eyes and ran a shaking hand through her disheveled hair. 
Phillip closed his eyes too for a moment, then patted Xena on the shoulder softly. "Thank you" 
Then he walked over to the silent body beside her. A tear slid slowly down his cheek. In wild, uncoordinated motions he ripped his tunic into pieces in mourning, then fell to his knees beside his son. He softly traced some lines on Elis' face, then slowly kissed his forehead. "Rest in peace my son." He got out in a soft whisper. 
Xena slowly regained her senses an looked up into a pair of dark blue eyes. "What's your name?" She asked the young woman peering over her. 
"Esta" was the soft reply 
"Well, Esta I owe you my life" Esta's eyes almost popped out of her head. "If you hadn't said anything I would have never reached these walls So Thank you." 
"Y You you're welcome" She managed. 

"So, after that day she actually allowed me to follow her around." Esta said, grinning. "I would've followed her to Hades and back. But the Athenian army offered me a big promotion and she told me to take it. I wanted to come with her but she said there was no way she was going to let me come She knew things were going downhill I guess" She said, taking the last sip of her ale. "I kept informed about what was going on though. Heard she turned good. I met up with her about four years ago in an inn in Athens." 
"When was she in Athens?" Gabrielle said surprised, knowing they'd never traveled to Athens together. 
"You were at the academy or something" 
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "She she was there?" 
Esta smiled. "Uhuh. She said she just wanted to check if you were OK She heard this story you told in the courtyard and realized you'd be fine, then decided to have a drink at the pub before leaving again." 
Gabrielle mulled this over for a moment until the opening of the inn door made her look up to see a familiar shape enter. 

"Hey" Xena commented casually as she dropped in to a chair next to the both of them. 
"Everything arranged?" Esta asked. 
"All right, then I'm gonna get you a drink" 
Gabrielle gazed at the form sagged in the chair across from her. "You could have told me I I would have really appreciated it, you know?" 
Blue eyes peeked up at her. "I I didn't want you to think you were stuck with me or anything Gabrielle." 
"Hey, who was the one that was following you around in the first place??" 
Xena chuckled softly. "And who was the one that followed you back to Potedaia when you left. And to Athens. Gabrielle, I think I would've been more hopeless without you, then you ever would have been without me" 

Gabrielle gazed into the blue eyes across from her for a moment until her view got blocked by a huge mug of ale. 
"You liked your ale extra, extra large right? At least that's what I remember you ordering the last time" 
Xena grunted and looked up at the mug, then narrowed her eyes at Esta. "I suddenly remember why I hated you so much back then." 
Esta chuckled and put a smaller mug down in front of Gabrielle, then another for herself. 

Gabrielle chuckled as well and took a sip of her ale. "So how are things going out there?" She changed the subject. 
Xena looked up over her mug, obviously relieved with the change. "Not bad actually. Athenians are settled in, Alex is now back in the castle arguing with some numbers." She looked over at Esta, who was sipping her ale quietly, watching the two of them. "We're probably gonna make you a lieutenant You OK with that?" 
"Serving under you? Hades yeah." 
Xena chuckled. "Glad you're so happy about it though, you're serving under Alex, me AND Gabrielle" 
Esta lifted an eyebrow at the bard. "So you're a lieutenant in this whole thing too?" 
Gabrielle wanted to answer, but got cut off by Xena. 
"Chief lieutenant actually" 
Another eyebrow lifted. "So what are you?" She directed at Xena 
"A chief lieutenant" 
"You got two of 'm?" Esta replied, then leaned closer to the warrior. "Xena, I know it's a big army and allbut isn't that overdoing it just a tiny little bit, huh?" 
"Nope." Xena stated simply, lifting her mug with some effort and taking a gulp. "It's lots handier this way actually" 
"It is huh?" 
"Yup " 
Esta leaned back again. "If you say so" 
Xena smiled and took another big swallow. 

After several candle marks of talking Gabrielle decided it was time to take off and Xena agreed quickly, the crowd and all that talking having tired the warrior out. That, and all that ale was catching up to her. As Gabrielle made her way to the bar to even out the bill, Xena and Esta stepped outside into the cool evening air. Xena took a deep breath, obviously relaxing. Then she shot a look at Esta. The Athenian looked back innocently. "What?" 
"I told you not to tell about the whole Athens thing." 
Esta tossed up her hands. "Hey it's not like I told her anything about the 'Too bad cause she's cute' remark." 
Xena narrowed her eyes dangerously. "I was drunk" She muttered. 
Her friend grinned wickedly. "Sure, Xena, sure." She said, waving her off.

Then the door got pushed open behind them and Gabrielle walked out. Esta patted Xena on the shoulder with a grin, then shook Gabrielle's hand. "Great meeting you Gab. Be seeing ya tomorrow huh?" 
"You betcha" Gabrielle returned, mimicking the Athenian's accent. 
Esta chuckled, then took off towards the lieutenants quarters, where she had stationed herself for the night.

Gabrielle and Xena took off towards the castle. 
"Gab, huh?" Xena chuckled. "You're getting along pretty well" 
Gabrielle smiled. "She's nice. And we have a lot in common. We both suffer from the 'follow the warrior syndrome' after all" 
The warrior let out another chuckle. "True, true" She said, then wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. 
Gabrielle looked up and smiled surprised. "What's that for?" 
"That's because if I don't have something to lean on I'm gonna tip over" 
Gabrielle chuckled. "You drank too much, didn't you" 
"Yep" Xena agreed cheerfully. Gabrielle quietly shook her head, smiling.
"Not my fault though, is it?"
"Not really no." Gabrielle replied, knowing her friend could never turn down a challenge like that. "But next time I'll keep track of the drinks" 
"Good" Xena muttered. 

They soon approached the castle. Xena pushed open the large door and let Gabrielle pass behind her. They greeted the guard, who cheerfully smiled back, then made their way back to their rooms. Gabrielle let her friend into her room, helped her into bed, softly tucked in the covers around her, then quietly headed for the door that separated their rooms. 
As she opened the door , she stopped for a moment, then turned around in the door frame. "So I'm cute huh?" 
Eyelids shot open to reveal two bright blue shocked eyes. 
Gabrielle laughed softly, then walked into her room and closed the door behind her, just catching the softly muttered 'oh Hades' coming out of the shadows. 

Xena's inner clock grudgingly went off at two candle marks before sunrise. With a grunt she pulled herself up, and rubbed her painfully throbbing temples. She softly shook her head at herself. "Xena, no more alcohol for you as long as Esta's in town." She muttered as she pulled over her bag and dug out the small herb kit. After mixing a few herbs together and adding some water, she swallowed the mixture down in one gulp and somehow managed to keep it inside. Slowly she started pulling on her leathers, mulling over the events of the night before. She was pretty sure she still remembered everything, but all the images in her mind were a bit blurry and the normally distinctive separation between dreams and reality had disappeared. 

She slowly started sorting through her memories. Drinking with Esta well, that was definitely reality unfortunately so Then there was the part where Argo had turned into a cow and was trying to jump over the moon. which she was guessing was a dream. Xena nodded to herself softly, as she pulled on a boot. Oh, right, and then Gabrielle had figured out she'd said she was c. Xena's blue eyes flashed up. For a moment she sat there very quietly. "Dream, definitely a dream." She then muttered softly, nodding to herself. "Definitely a dream." 

After pulling on the last pieces of leather, she pushed open the door to Gabrielle's room. 
The bard glanced up as she tied the last knot in her shoelaces. "Hi" 
Xena's eyebrows both shot up. "You're actually awake?" 
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Yeah, good huh? I figured we'd be busy today, so we might as well get a move on Come on" She said, then stood, and dragged the warrior along out the door behind her. 

Xena slowly walked around the training square, watching the men and women spar against each other. They'd simply integrated the Athenians into the training program, and the new forces had quickly caught on. Esta, was impressed, she could tell and that actually made her feel quite good. This whole thing She looked around the square slowly, seeing the now experienced sword slashes and staff moves being performed without flaw This all made her feel good about herself in a way. Training an army wasn't a thing she'd done in a while, and the fact that it still came so naturally 

A part of her knew that this was her dark side talking. Her dark side that was counting the days till their departure, till the beginning of the war. And she also knew she would have to let that part surface if they wanted any chance to win the oncoming battles. Pushing that side of her back afterwards was going to be a problem, but she was pretty sure she would be able to do that. 

She spotted Alexander, and walked over to the young king who was sparring with one of the soldiers. "Alex, mind if I have a word." 

The boy the king had been sparring with took a step back, ending the duel. 
Alexander smiled at him. "Thanks for the practice"
The boy smiled. "My pleasure, my liege." 
Then he bowed and walked off. 

Alexander turned to the warrior. "What's up?" 
"Lots, that's the problem." Xena started, guiding Alexander away from the crowd. "We depart in a week, if everything will go according to plan, so I suggest we have a meeting tonight. We have to discuss food supplies, weaponry, the route towards Persia and more important, we'll have to see how to place the Athenian forces into the army in the best possible way and I think we should update Esta on the Angra thing." 
Alexander nodded at all this. "I'll organize a meeting for tonight." He decided. "Could you inform the lieutenants. I'll go and do all my paperwork and see you tonight with all the details." 
Xena nodded. "Perfect." Alexander patted the warrior on the shoulder, then paced off towards the city. 

Xena watched him walk off, then turned around and walked over to where Gabrielle was battling one of the older soldiers, a well-built, tall man, who was trying to overpower the bard with his height and strength. 
Xena chuckled softly at the effort, knowing it wouldn't work. Gabrielle was diverting the blows to her left and right, taking the sting out of them easily and was now simply wearing the older man out. 
As the warrior approached she saw the green eyes divert quickly to take a look at her, then return to the fight.
"Hi." Gabrielle commented cheerfully, though slightly out of breath. 
"Hey." Xena replied. "Would you mind finishing this?" 
"Course not." The bard commented, then ducked under her opponents next blow, causing him to lose his balance and then just used a light tap on his side to finish the job and make him fall to the ground. 
He looked up at her and softly shook his head. "How do you do that?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I'll tell you later" She said, extending a hand and helping him to his feet.
"Deal" He smiled, then walked off. 

Gabrielle now directed her attention at her friend and raised an eyebrow.
"We've got a meeting tonight, to discuss everything Alex is out to gather some numbers of supplies and stuff." 
Gabrielle nodded. "And you want me to?" 
Xena smiled. "To take care of these guys while I take the others out on the horses. Just take them through the basic training, see what you can still teach them. I'll be back in a couple of candle marks." 
Gabrielle nodded again. "No problem. I'll keep them entertained." 
Xena smiled, then ruffled the bard's hair affectionately before walking off towards the stables. 

Xena pushed Argo forward and separated herself from the group, then turned to face them. She'd taken a fairly small part of the army with her and the maybe hundred men were now gazing at her expectantly. "All right" She said, raising her voice. "Fighting on horseback is about the hardest thing there is, but if it's done well, winning a battle is much, much easier. I know most of you are all ready experienced in horseback fighting, but I think by now you know I want perfection, not just plain ability" She let her eyes roam over the troops.
"All right, the most important thing, is simple balance. I want you all to just tie a knot in those reins in front of you" Xena went on, demonstrating it with her own reins. "and then just follow me into a trot and canter without even thinking about using your hands for balance. Got it?" 

Several nods were the answer, so Xena nudged Argo in the side and by using her thighs and shifting her balance she made the mare turn and started walking forward at an easy pace. Behind here she heard horses' hooves move and follow her quietly. After a moment, when she knew everybody had settled down a little, she pressed her heels into Argo's flanks and the horse slowly moved into an easy trot. 

A loud thump followed by several other similar sounds echoed through the valley. Xena rolled her eyes and sighed, then lifted her hand to stop the still moving men behind her and spun Argo around easily to see half of her small force lying faced down in the sand. Several horses looked up at her with a non understanding look on their faces. 
"OK" Xena drawled slowly "I think we might want to practice this again." 

Then in a quick move Gabrielle grabbed onto her opponent's staff , turned, then pulled and flipped the woman over her back. With a loud thud she landed in the sand. 
"You see, just like that." She stated, looking up at the 'students' surrounding them and watching the whole scene with interest. 
"Yeah, you can do that to her," A voice said, emerging from the group. A young boy stepped forward, looking at her intently. "But if someone twice your size and strength comes up, you won't be able to pull that one on 'm, will you?" 

Gabrielle sighed. After everything she'd showed them, these people still didn't see that it wasn't a matter of muscle, did they? Gabrielle rubbed her eyes tiredly. All right, all right Let's just go for plan B. 

"Actually, yes, I would. And I'll prove it to you." Gabrielle pointed to one of the more stronger looking guys in the group. "You, you wanna help me out here?"
"UhmS sure" The man stuttered, then stepped forward 
"Good." Then Gabrielle pointed to 6 other muscular men and made all of them come forward. 
"All right gentlemen, attack." 
"The men exchanged looks with each other. "Uhm all of us?" One asked frowning 
"At once?" 
A nod. 
The men looked at each other again "Would you guys just get moving?" Gabrielle let out in annoyance. "I told you to attack, so do it." 
One guy shrugged and walked towards her. As he got close enough Gabrielle swept her staff in his direction. He blocked it with both forearms, then grabbed on to her staff in an effort to pull it out of her hands. Gabrielle easily turned and flipped him over her back, working her staff loose as he fell. Then she turned, and leaning on her staff raised an eyebrow at the other six. 
There was another moment of silence, then, in a thundering yell, they rushed at her.

Xena slowly swept her sword around her in a half circle, then started doing slow sword drills around Argo's head. The rest of the troop quietly followed her movements. They continued this as they went into a slow walk and even a slight trot. Xena pulled aside and let the men circle around her at an easy pace. She saw them slowly get into the rhythm of the drill. A worthwhile afternoon, she told herself. 

Just at the moment she wanted to make them go into a slow canter, her senses suddenly shot up. A sound, hardly hearable even to her, edged its way into her ears. An uneasy feeling crawled into her belly and stirred around there uncomfortably. 
Par's head shot up, immediately hearing the change in his commander's voice. 
Xena grabbed hold of Argo's reins. "Lead them back. I have to go." She pushed Argo into a gallop and sped through the lines of men. 
Parmenios gazed after her, then ordered the men to a halt. "We're heading back guys And let's make this quick" He said, quickly placing his sword back in the scabbard tied on his saddle, then trotted off. "Let's make it quick, 'cause something's very wrong back there." He muttered to himself as he saw the troops move into formation before he pushed his horse into a canter, following the disappearing form in the distance. 

Gabrielle quickly dispersed of the first two attackers by well placed hits. The other four came at her simultaneously, the last one slightly hiding behind the other three. Gabrielle placed her staff on the ground and pushed herself off, hitting the left one firmly in the chest, then spinning around to slam her staff into the second one. The man stumbled back because of the hit, but managed to stay on his feet and the three guys launched themselves at her. 

Seeing no other escape she quickly ducked and rolled aside, letting the three pass her. As she turned she saw them closing in on her again, the man in the middle slightly falling back. Then the sunlight reflected on the small piece of metal he held in his hands. 

"No!" The two soldiers that were on either side of her attacker stopped in shock, but the middle man lunged forward, aiming straight for her heart. 
Knowing there was no way she could duck she did the only other thing possible and grabbed on to her attacker's wrist, pushing it down with all her strength. She pushed it away from her heart but couldn't avoid it from hitting her completely and with a searing sting the blade edged his way into her lower abdomen. 

Gabrielle let out a scream and with her last strength managed to place her feet against the man in front of her as she fell and pushed him off. 
Her attacker stumbled back several paces, but ran forward quickly enough, to finish his kill. Before any of the soldier around could even realize what was going on he ran for the now kneeling Gabrielle and lifted his blade for the final stab. 

Then there was a thundering of hooves and a vicious shifting of air. There was the soft sound of metal hitting flesh and the man let out a yell, dropping to his knees. The blade dropped out of his hand and on the sand. The assassin wrapped both arms around his neck, trying to stop the blood pouring out next to the dagger stuck in his throat, his breath coming in heavy rasps. 

Xena thundered into the square and, before Argo could even pull to a halt, jumped off the horse and ran towards the lying form. She dropped to her knees and knelt over Gabrielle's body. The bard was pressing down tightly on the large gap, blood seeping out through her clenched hands. 

"Gabrielle" Xena managed, touching the bard's cheek, then she looked at the cut. "By the gods Gabrielle I'll have to" She started, starting to rip of a piece of her tunic she was wearing under her leathers. 
Xena's eyes shot up and met the intense green ones. 
"No," Gabrielle breathed "Save him." 
Blue eyes widened. "Gabrielle" 
"Xena" Gabrielle lifted one hand and grabbed onto Xena's, stilling it. "He has information" a raspy breath. "that we need" Another deeper breath as the deep green eyes focused quietly on hers. "You know I'm right." 

Another quiet moment, then Ptolemaios dropped down by her side. "Go Xena, I'll help Gabrielle, I know how to treat this wound." 
Xena's eyes shot up to meet his. Then she nodded and after a last look at the bard she got up and walked over to the sprawling form a little way of, now surrounded by soldiers. Xena grabbed hold of one soldier, gave him some orders, then sent him on his way to collect the things she'd told him to. With slow deliberate steps she walked closer to the assassin. Viciously trying to pull air into his lungs he looked up helplessly at her. 
Xena slowly knelt down beside him slowly and looked him straight into his eyes. "You" She spoke softly, drawing out the words. "are so lucky."
Then in a flash she pulled the dagger out of his throat and quickly punctured another smaller hole slightly lower of the cut. The soldier handed her the small straw she'd asked for and in another savage move she pushed the straw into the slight hole she'd created in his windpipe. 

A big breath of air entered his lungs. Slowly he calmed down as his breathing continued normally and Xena bandaged his neck. Then the warrior stood. In the corner of her eye she could see Gabrielle was being carried off on a barrier in the direction of the hospital. 

The lieutenant, having returned with the group of riders, came running over and looked up at Xena. "Take ten of your best men and take him to the prison. I want you to keep an eye on this guy day and night, you got me?" 
Alaran nodded, then ran off, starting to yell out names. 

"Why?" Xena turned around to see Halys standing behind her. "Why did you save him, after what he did? Almost did?" 
Xena looked down for a moment, then back up into dark blue eyes. "We need him." 
Halys frowned. 
"He's a Persian spy Halys, look." Xena grabbed the assassin by the arm and lifted the fabric covering his upper arm. The man looked up at her with angry eyes, but did nothing to resist as Xena revealed the snake tattoo curled around his arm. Xena let go of the man's arm and raised herself to stare into Halys' eyes. "They never come alone, almost always in threesomes. He is the key to find the other two, before they manage to escape and pass valuable information to Xerxes." Xena was quiet for a moment, closing her eyes, ordering her thoughts. "Halys, I need you to set up a patrol. I want every inch of our border manned. No one will get through. At this moment, everybody is a suspect, trust no one. Go to Parmenios and get him to help you." 
Halys nodded. "Consider it done." 
Xena nodded, then walked off. 
"Hey Xena?" 
Dark eyebrows edged up. 
"Say hi to her from me." 
A slight smile crossed the warrior's face. "I will." 

Xena slowly edged open the door to the healer's station. The room she entered was fairly large, almost completely empty, except for the odd table and chair here and there and the one bed, placed in the corner of the room. As she entered, Ptolemaios, who'd been sitting by the bed, stood and walked over. 
"She is sleeping now" He said in a low voice. "I treated the wound with al the right herbs, then stitched it up and bandaged it It's going to take time to heal though.. " 
Xena nodded softly. "I'll make sure of it thanks Ptolemaios."
The Egyptian smiled. "Not to worry my friend. I have the skill of healing so it is my duty to use it. That technique you used was very fascinating by the way. If you could spare some time to teach it to me some time, I would appreciate it." 
"Count on it." Xena said with a slight smile. "Now, I'll handle this here. You go and report to Par, he'll explain the situation." 
Ptolemaios nodded, then saluted and strode off.

Xena turned and slowly paced over to bed in the corner. The form on the pallet moved and as the warrior stepped closer green eyes blinked open and gazed up at her. 
"Hi" Gabrielle said softly, trying to work herself up. A sharp pain shot through her and she dropped back on the bed, flinching. 
Xena immediately took hold of her shoulder. "Hey, don't do that, you should let this heal you" A sigh. "Gabrielle, what in Hades name did you think you were doing? I mean for crying out loud"
"I just wanted to prove a point" Gabrielle managed. 
"To let seven guys rush at you in an insecure surrounding that's just plain stupid Gabrielle. You should" 
Xena looked down at the bard. 
"Could you please yell at me later? I'm sorry I" 
Blue eyes dropped. "No no I'm sorry I shouldn't have brought it up now.. it's just" She looked up again. "You scared the crap out of me you know that?" 
"Out of you and me both." A small sigh escaped the bard. "I know it was stupid Xena but" Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment "I can't stand it that these guys see me as just 'the bard' " 
"They don't see you as that Gabrielle" 
"Yes they do" Gabrielle interrupted. "I mean, they respect me and all, I know that But they respect me because you're my friend.. because I'm 'Xena's sidekick' Not because of me" Gabrielle smiled. "You're reputation is quite hard to beat you know." 
Xena let a grin cross her lips. "Sorry." 
Gabrielle chuckled, then regretted the action as her shot of pain soared through her. "Ouch, don't make me laugh OK, it hurts"
Xena smiled softly, and ruffled the bards hair. Then she placed her hand on the bard's cheek and forced her eyes to meet hers. "Gabrielle, I promise you that when we survive this war, you're reputation is going to soar. You'll be known all over Greece The only thing is, you'll be known as a warrior, not a bard." 
Gabrielle's eyes closed for a moment, then she nodded softly. "I realize that And if it's a warrior I'm supposed to be, I'll be it. If that's my faith"
"Faith is what you make of it." Xena interrupted. "It's all up to you Gabrielle." 
Gabrielle softly shook her head. "Sometimes Xena, there are no choices Sometimes there's just good and bad and you have to do the right thing." 
"What if this is not one of those times" 
"What if it is." Gabrielle replied with deadly precision. 

In the silence that followed Xena searched her friends eyes, but saw nothing but determination there. "Let me work on it." She then said softly. 
"Work on what?" 
"Your reputation." Was the reply. "Gimme a couple of days and" 

At that moment the door burst open and Alex came charging into the healers quarters. "Oh look, the cavalry's here" Xena muttered, making Gabrielle chuckle, then flinch. 
"Gabrielle!" Alex yelled from across the room, quickly walking closer. "By the gods are you all right??" 
"Yes Alex, I'm fine I've got a huge hole in my belly, but except from that, I'm great."
Alex looked over to where a big bandage was strapped across the girl's stomach. "Will it heal before we leave?" He asked. 
"Not completely, but it will be healed when we get to the border of Persia. With the proper treatment and rest." Xena said, emphasizing the word rest and casting a meaningful look at Gabrielle, who rolled her eyes in response. "The wound should be closed before we leave." 

Alex nodded, happy with the answer. "So who did this. I heard a Persian is in my dungeons?" 
Xena nodded. "Persian spy. He'll stay in the cell until I have time to question him. First we have to concentrate on finding the others." 
"Others?" Alexander replied with a frown. 
Xena nodded. "It's normal for a Persian king to send out spies, but unusual for him to send them alone. In case their mission is uncompleted others will need to take over" 
Alexander nodded.. "He's pretty stupid though, attacking Gabrielle in the middle of the training square he could have never gotten away." 
"That wasn't his intention." Gabrielle now interrupted. Alexander looked down to face her. Gabrielle took a breath. "He's part of the Immortals. That's Xerxes' best warriors, best assassins, best spies. Their king gives them a goal, and they will achieve it, no matter what. Death is insignificant."
Xena brow edged up in surprise, then she realized Gabrielle had been spending quite some time in the library. 
Alexander nodded. "We have to have that meeting tonight, talk about this with everybody, see what is the best thing to do" 
Xena nodded. "We can't all be there though. I've sent the troops out to guard the border. The other spies might want to make their escape now. We have to catch them before they do and give Xerxes information about our status." 
"All right" Alexander replied after some thought. " A quarter of all higher ranked will stay out there, the rest will come in"
"Good." Xena replied, then stood. "I'll go out."
Alexander jumped up. "But Xena..?! We need you there" 
"No you don't." Xena replied easily, as she stretched, making some bones pop back into place. 
"Gabrielle knows how I think and she knows just as much if not more about the Persian military structure." She turned back to the quiet form on the bed.. "But don't you dare walk there. Let them carry you."
"Nu uh" Xena said, lifting a finger. "No complaints. If you walk I'll personally come over and strap you down on that pallet, you got me?" 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yes, I got ya." 
The warrior smiled and patted her friends cheek. "That's a good girl." She smirked, then strode off, leaving the room with a cheerful goodbye.

They both remained silent for a moment. "Well" Alex then said, straightening himself. "I guess I'd better get going I'll.. ehm I'll arrange an escort for you to take you to the castle unless you'd rather not be moved We could" 
"No, the castle is fine" 
Alexander nodded, then turned to leave but a voice behind him stopped him. "Alex?" 
"Get some soldiers to go with you on your way back OK. If those assassins are out there, you'll be next on their list." 
Alexander nodded. "I know." He said quietly, turned to walk away, but turned around again. "Gabrielle?" The woman on the pallet lifted an eyebrow at him. 
"Don't Don't you ever get tired of this? Of being under threat all the time?" 
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, considering the question. "Sometimes." She finally said. "But I know that living with Xena and being her friend means I'm under threat just as much as she is I think the risk is worth it, so I don't care anymore. It becomes part of life" 
Alexander looked down. "Sometimes, I wonder if it's worth it for me." 
Gabrielle's eyes turned to look at the quiet bent man, no, boy sitting beside her. "It will be Alex. I know it seems now like you're in too deep, but what you're doing is right. Just the fact that you know you're doing the right thing is worth the cost. When it's all over and you see the faces of the people you saved, you realize that." 
Alex' brown eyes peered up at her. "You think?" 
Gabrielle let a smile slowly cross her face. "I know I've been there remember?" 
"Yeah" the king said, smiling himself now. "Thank you Gabrielle." Then he stood and headed for the door. "I'll see you tonight." 
Gabrielle nodded. "Take care of yourself Alex." 
"I will." The king stated, then let the door close behind him. 

"Hey boy" Xena said, as she approached the black stallion in the corner of the stables. "I bet you'd like to go for a run huh?" Chilon let out a snort and pushed his nose in Xena shoulder. The warrior smiled and patted his neck. 
Meanwhile Argo had stuck her slightly sweaty head out of the next door stable and was regarding the scene with a little jealousy. Xena turned to the mare and ruffled her manes. "I've been slaving you off all day Argo, you just get some rest OK?" 
The mare neighed softly and nuzzled her rider, then retreated into her box. The warrior walked back to Chilon and saddled him expertly, then led him outside the stables. She put her foot in the stirrup and swung her leg over the stallion's back. The horse moved restlessly under her, exited about his night travel. She patted his neck again and spoke soft calming words, then pushed the horse into a controlled canter, heading for the border. In spite of the speed the two moved almost silently and unseen. 

The guard at the first outpost she reached therefore only noticed her when she was almost in his face. He quickly saluted. 
"At ease." Xena muttered as she tried to calm the horse. "What were your instructions?" 
"Parmenios divided us over the full length of the border, ma'am. In pairs of three, in case there is another traitor among us. The two others are a little way over there, they thought they heard a sound. 
At that moment two more soldiers came jogging over, noticed their lieutenant and saluted as they came to a halt beside her. "Hail Xena." 
"Nothing?" The warrior asked. 
"Nope, probably just a bird. We searched the whole perimeter, nothing to be seen." 
Xena extended her senses for a moment and decided she agreed, then nodded. "Nice going boys, good work. Stay alert." Then she pushed Chilon off and headed east along the border. 

The first lieutenant she ran into was Ptolemaios, who uttered a quick salute, then asked about Gabrielle's condition. "She's fine" The warrior responded, "and I'd like to keep it that way. The meeting for this evening is still on Ptolemaios. I want you to be there and make sure she stays put and doesn't push herself." 
Ptolemaios nodded. "Of course. Do you want me to head off now?" 
"Yeah, put two of the men you trust in charge and make sure they watch each other. I don't want to divide the army with distrust, but we can't take any risks. Come with me. I don't want anybody traveling alone" The Egyptian nodded, then walked over to a brown mare standing a little way off and saddled himself. He called out some names and soon two men were standing beside him. He whispered something, they saluted. Sitting a bit uncomfortably, obviously not used to riding he pushed his horse over to where Xena was waiting. "Let's go." Xena turned Chilon and took off, the brown mare trailing behind her. 

A soft knock echoed through the empty healer's hut. Gabrielle turned her head. "Come in." 
A young soldier edged himself inside, then softly walked over to Gabrielle's side and saluted. Gabrielle just smiled at him. "King Alexander send me, miss. He said he wanted you guarded." 
Gabrielle grinned. "Oh did he now?"
The soldier nodded. "The others are standing outside, guarding the door. I just thought I'd let you know"
"Thank you." Gabrielle said softly. "And don't leave them outside, come sit here. There's no reason for you to be standing out there when you can be sitting in here." 
"But lieutenant..."
"No buts You can protect me just as well in here as outside, and secondly, I'm bored here by myself, I want to know what's going on out there." 

The soldier seemed to be in doubt for a moment, then walked to the door and motioned his friends in. Awkwardly they stepped inside. 
"Grab a seat." Gabrielle said, motioning at some chairs a little way off. "So tell me, what's your name. 
"I uhmI'm Michael, lieutenant, and these are Tobias and Icus. We're part of the king's personal guard." 
"Well well Tell me, Michael, what's happening out there?"
"It's chaos out there, miss" 
"Gabrielle" Gabrielle interrupted. "I hate all the titles." 
The boy smiled. "Gabrielle The people of Pella are concerned. They heard the rumors." 
"Word travels fast here" 
"It does They're quite concerned about you too" 
"They are?" Gabrielle asked surprised. 
The boy nodded. "Everybody in town likes you. You're the storyteller." 
Gabrielle managed a sad smile. "Yeah" 
"Xena's at the border. Lieutenants are moving back into town, heading for the castle." Icus went on. "The people are very curious about what's going on, if plans have changedHave they?" 
"I don't know." Gabrielle lied, knowing quite well Alexander had no intention of waiting. "We'll have to see how things go." 
The boys nodded, understanding. 

Ptolemaios separated from the other lieutenants as they reached town and headed for the healer's quarters. After he tied up his horse he walked towards the door. His brows frowned as he heard a strong voice resonate through the room. He shook his head, then pushed open the door. 
"So even though she was blind, Xena" Gabrielle's voice stopped abruptly as she saw the door open. 
"I told you to rest Gabrielle." Ptolemaios' voice sounded, a hint of amusement in it. 
Gabrielle grinned. "Hey, who's the chief lieutenant here?" 
Ptolemaios chuckled, then turned to the soldiers. "Boys, could you wait outside for a moment?" 

The three nodded, then stood and moved away. Michael turned around at the door. "Gabrielle, you'll finish the story later right?" 
"Count on it." She smiled back, then the door closed and left them in silence. 
"Xena's asked me to escort you to the meeting." The Egyptian got straight to the point, as was his custom, something Gabrielle really appreciated in him. "I suggest we head out now, that'll give your body some time to calm down  before the meeting."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm up for it let's go." 

"Hail Xena." 
Xena pulled up her horse next to Esta. "I want you to head down to the castle." Xena stated as she hopped off of Chilon's back. 
"No, my forces are here Xena, I" 
"No argument." Xena said, pinning cold blue eyes on her. "I want you to head down, so you will." 

Esta eyed her soberly. "I know you're the boss around here Xena, you don't have to prove that to me." 
Xena closed her eyes for a moment. "Sorry, stress levels are up and it's
getting to me But you have to be at the meeting, Esta, you'll need to be informed." 
"You're not going to be there?" 
"No, Gabrielle will take my place, I have to stay out here." 
"Gabrielle? She should be in the hospital, not in the meeting room" 
"She's a chief lieutenant, she'll be where she has to be." 
Esta gazed at the warrior. "Aren't you putting a lot of pressure on her Xena? She's just a kid" 
"She's putting the pressure on, not me" Xena stated quietly. "And Esta, don't underestimate her. She's not 'just a kid'. She's been through far more than you have Never forget that." 
Esta was quiet for a moment, then nodded. "I'll head back. Anybody you want me to pick up along the way?" 
"Pick up the lieutenants at the third and fifth outpost you hit along the way to the east, then go down. I'll stay here." 
Esta nodded and saluted Xena with a slight smile. "Feels good doing that again." She grinned, then headed for her horse and trotted off. 
Xena watched go, then smiled softly as she walked towards the men standing a bit off. 

Esta entered the meeting room as it was filling up. A low murmur filled the room. As she moved to an empty chair at the far side of the table she caught some flares of conversation, containing useless speculation she had no need to hear. She seated herself and gazed at the form across from her. Alexander was sitting quietly, not mingling in any talk, pensively playing with a pencil and jabbing down some points on the pieces of parchment in front of him from time to time. He was making no moves to start the meeting and was obviously waiting for some more arrivals. 

"OK, hold it guys." 
Ptolemaios stopped and turned around, seeing Gabrielle slowly lifting herself up. "No." He stated walking over. "You have to stay down Gabrielle, the wound has to heal." 
Green eyes made him stop in his tracks. "I'm walking in there Ptolemaios I've go a point to prove." 
"Wasn't you proving points the reason you got into this mess in the first place?"
"Don't argue with me, I don't have time." Gabrielle stated, then pushed herself off the pallet. Her knees almost collapsed under her, but she managed to keep herself standing. Ptolemaios raced over and wrapped an arm around her for support. He looked up at her with concerned eyes. She smiled back. "Don't worry, I'll be fine." 
"Xena will kill me." 
Gabrielle grinned. "I'll protect you." 
The Egyptian smiled back, then turned serious. "Be careful Gabrielle, don't force this, or the wound won't heal." Gabrielle patted his shoulder, then straightened her back and strode forward, pushing open the door to the council's chamber.

Esta watched the door slam open. The light from the hallway was blocked by a short but determined figure. The room around her fell silent, then soft whispers were hissed and Gabrielle's name softly echoed through the room. Gabrielle determinedly walked over to her chair beside Alexander. Esta detected the slight twitch with every step, but complimented the bard silently on her hiding it to near perfection. 

Alexander watched Gabrielle walk over and softly shook his head. As the bard dropped down in her chair and the other officers noisily made their way to their spots the young king leaned over. "You are some piece of work you know?" He whispered softly with a chuckle, then more serious. "Shouldn't you be lying down. I don't want you to push it Gabrielle" 
"Don't worry, just get this over with." Gabrielle muttered back. 
Alexander nodded, then stood. "People. I don't think I need to explain the reasons we're here for today. There's a lot on the agenda today, but I think we'd better start with the most important thing at the moment. I think we all know about what happened in the training square today and we are very fortunate that Gabrielle is with us here today. She suffered a knife wound in the lower abdomen which is healing right now. Therefore we'll try to keep this meeting as short as possible." Alexander scanned the room and saw agreement there, then he sat down. "Gabrielle?" 
Gabrielle stood slowly and placed both hands on the table for support. "We are dealing with a Persian assassin here. The man has been thrown in our dungeons and will remain there until we will get to question him. Our main concern now is that there are probably more of these spies around. Xena suspects two more, but we can't be certain. But it is of utter importance we catch them as fast as possible. They will endanger the life of any high ranking officer, so I want you all to watch your backs from now on. Don't roam the grounds alone. I also suggest an extra set of guards to escort Alex, as he will be the main target." Gabrielle casted a glance at the young king, who rolled his eyes, but nodded. "These guys are very dangerous" she then continued to the crowd. "They are part of Xerxes' immortals and will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. I want you all to watch out for a snake tattoo twisting around the left arm. Furthermore, pay close attention to your troops, especially the most recent newcomers. If you have any suspicions I want you to report those to either Alexander, Xena or myself." Green eyes roamed over the faces. "Is that understood." 
"Yes lieutenant." 
"Good." Gabrielle stated, then sat down. 

Alexander stood. "The borders will remained manned until we leave. Which is still in a week. Nothing has changed and plans remain exactly the same as they were, only we'll have to be more cautious. I just want to let you all know our status at the moment. The troops are quite well. I've talked to both Xena and Gabrielle and some of you and we've all come to the conclusion that they are just about ready for this. I have seen remarkable improvement in all of them, and even in most of you and certainly in myself and realize quite well that we have Xena and Gabrielle to thank for that." 
"You're very welcome" Gabrielle interrupted, causing a wave of soft laughter. 
Alexander chuckled as well. "Good to hear. But anyway, the troops are up to speed and with the addition of the Athenian forces, lead by Esta, who has been able to join us tonight, I think we'll make quite a dent in those Persian defenses. As far as weapons go we're up to speed as well. All the swords and shields have been finished, the armor is almost completed. Nicias is working on special gear for all of you. Drop in on him some time and see what he has got for you. I can say his work is remarkable again, as always. Food supplies are good, though we'll probably have to find some towns along the way to help us with fresh supplies. Horses are doing well, though we don't have a lot, it'll do. I've made some plans and drew maps, but considering the situation and Gabrielle's need for rest, we won't discus those now." He fell silent for a moment. "Any questions?" 
One of the lieutenants lifted his hand. 
"Yes Marcus?" 
"What if one of the spies escapes. Will the information endanger the mission?" 
"It will cause a problem." Gabrielle stated, still seated. "We've tried to hide Xena's presence here from any outside informants, fearing Xerxes' reaction if he heard. But if he knows, he knows. There is nothing to be done about that. We'll surprise him in some other way." 

Marcus grinned. "Second question. How are you doing? Honestly." 
Gabrielle smiled back at him. "I'm hurt, but I'll heal. I've been talking to my nurse over there." She said, pointing at Ptolemaios, who chuckled softly. "And I should be fine when we reach the Persian border. But I would advise you all to watch yourselves. Being knifed really stinks." 

Laughter echoed through the room. Alexander finally raised himself again and ended the meeting, sending half of the lieutenants out to the border, leaving the other ones to get some rest. Esta was just about to walk off towards the stables when a hand touched her shoulder. "We need to talk about something." Gabrielle stated. "And I'd rather do that privately. You got a moment?" 
"Sure." Esta nodded. "One condition though." 
"You lie down. It hurts me just to look at you." 
Gabrielle let out a sigh and leaned on Esta's shoulder. "Let's go to the library, I know a comfortable couch just screaming my name." Esta chuckled, then helped Gabrielle over to the library doors. 

Xena sat down in front of the campfire, slowly sharpening her sword. Most men around her were standing, paying close attention to their surroundings, others were sitting as well, having a rest. Most of them were Athenian forces, a few though were from Pella. One of those boys now cautiously stepped toward the fire. Xena looked up and raised an eyebrow at him.
"Uhm... I uhm..." He stuttered, taking several paces back.." We uhm... we were wondering.. how Gabrielle... I mean, the lieutenant is doing... and uhm..." 
"She's fine" Xena replied, taking pity on the mumbling boy. "She got a pretty nasty blow, but she's been through worse than this..." 
"She has?" Another boy asked surprised. 
Xena's blue eyes took on a twinkle. Well Gab, you wanted a reputation... The warrior grinned, and motioned the boys over. They walked closer and sat down on one of the logs surrounding the fire, and she noticed the others were moving slightly closer to listen in. "I'm not much of a storyteller you know,  but there was this time, not too long ago, when we first met the Persians..." 

With a sigh Gabrielle settled down on the couch. "Ugh, that's better." 
Esta pulled up a chair, and sat down by her side. "So, what was this important stuff you had to tell me about?" 
Gabrielle fell silent for a moment, fumbling with a strap on her outfit, then looked up at the Athenian. 
"When we go into Persia... we won't just be fighting an army..." 
Esta frowned her brows. "What do you mean? There..." 
"Gods are involved." Gabrielle stated. "Not Olympian gods, a Persian god..." 
Esta looked at the haunted expression on the woman's face. "Trouble, is he?" 
Gabrielle nodded. "Lots of it... I don't know if you've heard the name Dahak.." 
"I have. I heard stories about him attacking Hercules' friend." 
"Well, you know he was bad news then... we are dealing with this guy's father." 
"Ouch" was the only comment. 
"Yeah... So... Xena and I, we just wanted you to know that it's not to late to back out..."
"I can't do that." 
Gabrielle looked at her. "We can't tell the troops Esta, there'll be chaos if we do. So, whatever you decide, you're deciding for them as well." 
Esta glanced at the floor for a long moment. "I'll think about it." She stated after a moment of thought. "I'll give you an answer in the morning." 
Gabrielle merely nodded, then softly reached over and touched the commander's shoulder. "I'm sorry we got you into this Esta... When Xena sent the message, we didn't know yet and..." 
Esta smiled. "Don't worry about it." Then she straightened. "I'd better get back to my troops. Do you want me to help you back to the healer's quarters?" 
"No." Gabrielle managed, grunting her teeth as she pulled herself up again. "I'll just head to my own room, it's closer and more comfortable." 
Esta nodded, then wrapped an arm around the bard for support and helped her up the stairs. She opened the door and guided the bard in. Gabrielle smiled at her. "Thanks" 
"No problem." The commander stated, then walked past the door. But just as she was bout to leave she turned around again. "Hey Gabrielle, can I give you one piece of advise?" 
"Don't push yourself any harder. You already have their respect." A short moment of silence. "And mine."
Gabrielle looked at the woman for a moment, then smiled. "Thank you, I really appreciate you saying that." 
Esta smiled back. "You're very welcome... Good night." 
"Good night Esta." 

The woman nodded back, then saluted her and strode out the door. Gabrielle gazed after her a moment, then sagged down on her pillow, letting out a deep breath. With a shaky hand she unbuckled the belt that was holding her tunic. The fabric under the belt was bright red. The bard muttered some curses, then stood, finding her balance holding on the edge of the bed, then slowly reached over for the saddlebags that stood in the corner. 

Xena heard the galloping hooves a long time before they reached the outpost. Alaran pulled his horse back and jumped off. "Hail Xena" 
"Yeah, yeah." Xena waved him off. "How did it go?" 
"Went well. Alexander did his little speech, updated us on all the stuff that's going on... And Gabrielle... she was amazing!" Alaran told her vibrantly. 
"She was huh?" Xena chuckled. 
"Oh yeah... I mean, candle marks after she gets stabbed in the guts she up and walking and..." 
The chuckle stopped abruptly. "She walked?" Xena asked, a dark growl starting to sound in her voice. 
"Hades yeah, slamming doors and all." Alaran stated cheerfully, then he took on a frown. "Hey, hey Xena? Where are you going?"
"I'm gonna check if my stupid friend hasn't killed herself." Xena grunted as she hopped on top of Chilon, then pushed the horse into a wild gallop. "You're in command until Esta comes back." She yelled behind her to Alaran, who was left standing in her dust. 

Moments later she was climbing up the stair of the castle. She turned left into the corridor and spotted the two guards in front of Gabrielle's room. When they saw her they saluted. Xena gave them a nod, then pushed open the door. 

The room was dark. Gabrielle was lying on her bed, apparently deeply asleep. "Gabrielle?" The warrior said softly. No reply. Xena kneeled down beside the bed, then slowly lifted the blanket off Gabrielle's stomach. A dark spot of blood covered the bard's sleep shirt, spreading across her stomach. "Damn it, Gabrielle" She lifted the fabric to see the wound, badly stitched together, that was starting to edge open. 
She reached for the bard's pulse. The warrior uttered a sigh of relief when she found it was still strong. "Guard!" 
One of the boys came bursting in the room. "Yes lieutenant!" 
"Get me a healing kit, now!" 
He gave her a quick nod, then raced out the room. 

Xena slightly patted the bard's face. "Come on Gabrielle, come on, wake up." 
The bard uttered a soft grunt. 
"Yeah, that's it, come on now..." 
Gabrielle slowly blinked open her eyes. "wha..." 
"You are an idiot, you know that?" 
"I told you to stay down." Xena said in a calm voice. 
Gabrielle cast her eyes down... "Sorry... I I tried to restitch it, but I was so tired"
"The stitching's getting loose. I'll have to restitch the wound... Gabrielle, you could've bled to death, you know that don't you?" 
"You're overreacting. It would've held until morning."
"That's not the point." Xena sighed. "You have a serious wound there Gabrielle. You have to let it heal." Another sigh as she rubbed her temple. "Please don't ever do that again, OK?"
Gabrielle looked down quietly. "OK." 
The warrior looked at her friend for a moment, then softly shook her head. "Good." She stated, standing up and quietly kissing the bard's forehead. "Cause that's the second time today you've scared the living daylights out of me and I don't like to be scared, you got that?" 
Gabrielle peered up with a slight smile. "Got it. I just had to show them..." 
"That you were a big girl, I know, I know... But next time you wanna be a big bad bard, just let me know in advance, OK?" 
"OK" At that moment the soldier rushed in with the healing kit and handed it to Xena. "Thank you" The warrior said to him, after which he left the room. 

Xena leaned over the bed, uncovering the wound, then slightly shook her head. She took her dagger out of the scabbard to cut the pieces of thread. "Hold on to something, this is gonna hurt." She sighed, then, as gently as possible, she started. 

Gabrielle's hold on the edge of the bed loosened as Xena tied of the thread, then cut the end off with her dagger. "Gods, I hate that."
Xena ruffled her hair affectionately, then sat down on the edge of the bed. "It'd teach you to stay out of harms way next time."
"Harm is getting in my way, I'm not in his." The bard muttered. "You know bad stuff always seems to be able to track me down. It's a curse."
Xena chuckled softly. "Keeps life interesting for me."
"Yeah, you're not the one with the wound here."
"True. But that wound wouldn't have been so painful to stitch if you would've let it heal."
The bard looked at her friend and lifted an eyebrow. "Would you have let yourself be carried into that meeting room?"
Xena was quiet for a moment. "No." She finally stated. "But this is different."
"Why?" Gabrielle replied. "We're in the same position now Xena. Same status, same responsibilities..."
"We are very different Gabrielle."

Xena crossed her arms silently. "The difference is that I picked up my first sword when I was 7. Won my first sparring match at 8. Could beat almost everybody in the village at 14. Lead the rebellion against Cortese at 15, had my first real army at 16" 
Gabrielle looked at her quietly. "That's quite a resume you got there."
The warrior smiled. "The point is, Gabrielle, that I've been slaving my body for about 15 years now. My body is used to handling these things, to me pushing it to extremes. Yours isn't. Don't expect any more of your body then it can handle, Gabrielle. Let it heal."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "All right, all right."
The warrior grinned, then stood. "I'd better get back."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, don't you think it's about time to get some sleep?"
"Can't sleep. I've got Persians to catch." Xena replied simply, straightening her leathers. 
"They've got things handled out there you know, they can do without you for a couple of candle marks You should get some rest." Gabrielle reasoned, giving her friend a meaningful look.
"I'll get some sleep tomorrow."
The bard threw up her hand in defeat. "Sometimes I wonder why I even try."
Xena chuckled softly, then patted the bards cheek. "Take care."
"You too. Be careful, OK? They're after you too."
"Pff." Xena waved her off with a wave of her hand. "Couple of Persians, piece of cake."
Gabrielle gave her a look. "You've been listening to those soldiers of yours to much."
Xena gave her a hurt look. "What? You don't believe I'm Xena, warrior extraordinaire who can fight off thousands of enemies single-handedly and leap over tall buildings in a single bow?" A chuckle, then the warrior wiggled her fingers at her friend and crossed the room, pushing herself off and launching out of the window.
Gabrielle looked after her friend for a moment, then shook her head. "Incredible " She muttered as she turned over and pulled the covers up closer. 

Parmenios looked up as he heard galloping hooves approach. Immediately focusing his attention on where the sound was coming from he could soon make out the outline of the rider coming out of the shadows. "Xena!" He greeted her, lifting his hand.
Chilon trotted closer, then halted as Xena hopped off his back. "Hey Par."
"How's your co-chief doing? She OK?"
"Yeah, she's OK." The warrior muttered as she warmed herself by the campfire. "She's an idiot for walking mere candle marks after she's been stabbed in the gut, but she'll be OK."
"She made quite an impression though." Par said as he sat down on a log near the flames. "Everybody's talking about her. 
"Yeah, well, she should be more concerned about her health than her reputation." Xena muttered. "We're gonna need her when we ride out."
Par nodded, then took on a thoughtful look. "I can't believe it's gonna be just a week from now." He said, softly, shaking his head.
"Me neither." Xena sighed, watching her breath drift up into the night's sky as a small patch of smoke. 
"You think we're ready?"
Xena thought about this for a moment, then nodded softly. "Yeah, I think we are." She said, letting her eyes roam over the troops surrounding her that were watching the shadows attentively for any movement. "I think we are."
"Good." Parmenios nodded, then changed topic. "You should go back, get some sleep."
A low chuckle was the answer. "Warrior Princesses don't sleep Par." Then the warrior straightened. "I oughta get going." She said, walking back to the quietly standing Chilon. "See ya in the morning Par."
Parmenios shook his head softly. "Just get some sleep, OK? Even you're only human Xena."
The warrior just chuckled, then pushed Chilon into a canter, moving east. 

The bright sunlight peeked into Gabrielle's room. The bard grunted, but finally blinked open an eyelid. She let her eyes roam across the room for a moment, then her attention focused on a small table placed nearby, a bunch of scrolls piled up on top. Gabrielle chuckled softly as she reached over and picked up the small piece of parchment that was lying on top. 

I figured you'd need something to keep you busy today. I marked some of the passages in the Persian one that you might find interesting, see if you can figure them out. 
Stay put! 
I'll drop in this afternoon to check on you and if you've even moved one inch I'll have to punish you severely. Consider yourself warned.


"Oh, now I'm scared." Gabrielle chuckled, folding the note up and tucking it away. Then she reached over for the first scroll and unrolled it at the top.

A little later a  knock on the door made her look up. "Come in."
The door edged open and Alexander's head peeked in. "Mind some company?"
"Hades no." Gabrielle grinned as she put the scroll away.
The king smiled and made his way over to the bed, pulling up a chair and sitting down. "I see you're obeying the chief's orders this time."
The bard chuckled "Oh yeah, she threatened me into near extinction, so I decided to stay put today." She smiled. "So, what's up?"
"Well, considering I have my chief lieutenant at my full disposal, I figured I'd take advantage of the situation and ask her to give me some of her reliable advise."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Suck up."
Alexander chuckled, then took a piece of parchment from one of his pockets and unfolded it, then handed it to the bard. "That's a small map of Macedonia and the land from here till the Persian border." Alexander explained as Gabrielle flicked over the map. "I've been working out what's the best route to take to Persia." He pointed out some red dots on the map. "These villages have send word that they're willing to send the army some supplies and that we can camp outside their walls."

Gabrielle nodded quietly, tracing the line that Alex had drawn across the map, leading south towards the border. She gazed at the names of several of the villages until a familiar name crossed her path. 


She was quiet for a moment. "Looks good to me." She stated, handing the map back to the young king. "I'll have to talk to Xena about it though."
Alexander gave her an odd look. "Any specific reason?"
"Amphipolis" Gabrielle stated simply, leaning over and pointing at the black dot next to the name. "It's her hometown."
"Oh." Alexander said quietly. "Do Do you think she'll want to avoid it?"
Gabrielle looked away for a moment. "I don't know. If she does we can pass here." She continued, tracing a line east, circling past the town. "It's not that far around, just one extra day or so"A moment of silence. "I'll talk to her Alex, don't mention anything to her until I have, OK?"
The king just nodded. "Sure."
"Any other news?"
"Not much." Alex stated, folding up the map and tucking it back into his pocket. "No sign of any Persians yet. Xena's doubled your security."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Nicias says hi and he told me he finished your armor. And Xena's for that matter. He's very pleased with them, he says. Halys said that if you ever pull a stunt like you did yesterday she'll personally come over here and strap you to your bed."
The bard chuckled. 
"And Alaran said, and I quote: "You were way cool." "
The chuckle became laughter. Alexander laughed as well, then patted her on the shoulder. "I'd better let you rest."
"Thanks for the company Alex, I appreciate it."
"Don't worry bout it." The king waved her off. "Take care Gabrielle."
"You too." The bard replied as the king slipped out and softly let the door close behind him.

Steps echoed through the corridors as Alexander made his way back to his room, followed by two guards. He turned a corner, then walked past two more guards that were guarding his door. The two saluted him and he gave them a smile as he pushed open the door and walked into the room. 
The two other guards remained outside as well and Alexander quietly sat down behind his desk. He pulled open the bottom drawer, taking out some pieces of parchment and placed them on his desk. He went through the pieces, then dipped his quill in the black ink that was on a small jar on his desk and added some notes. 

A knock sounded on his door and Alex looked up. "Enter."
One of the guards walked in, tapping his chest and then extending his flat hand in salute. "My liege."
"With your permission, I'd like to inspect the room for a moment, to check if anything has been hidden in here. Persian tricks. Crossbows, whatever. Xena's orders."
Alexander looked at the dark haired man that was slightly taller then him and smiled. "Go ahead."
The soldier nodded, then started to circle the room, looking through the cabinets.

Alexander returned his attention to his parchment. He read through another section, then tried to scribble down some words. He sighed as his ink ran out halfway, and lifted his head to dip the quill back in the ink. 

A flash of metal caught his gaze, and instinctively he ducked. With a loud bang the dagger smashed against the wall and then fell to the ground. Alex looked up to see the soldier drawing his sword, then lunging towards him. 

The king ducked, then grabbed onto his attackers wrists and let himself fall backwards, dragging his opponent along with him. He managed to get his feet against the soldiers stomach and pushed him off, making him fly backwards and out the window. 

The door flew open as the three remaining guards entered. "King Alexander?"
"Assassin." The king just muttered, running over to the window and peering out. The soldier was scrambling up and, slightly limping, tried to make his way towards the forest. 
Alexander spun around, grabbing his sword as he ran for the stairs, followed closely by his guards. "Parsus, go inform Xena." He yelled over his shoulder to one of the soldiers. "Mattheus, Timos, follow me."

Alexander ran across the grass towards the forest. A tiny dot in the distance could still be seen, heading for the trees. Alexander increased his speed, leaving his guards behind as he closed in on his assassin. 

The Persian managed to make his way into the forest and ran as fast as he could to get away from his pursuers, but with his limp he was no match for Alexander, who was catching up to him quickly. He glanced over his shoulder to see the king had almost caught up to him. 

In a fluent motion the Persian turned around and drew his sword. Alexander quickly lifted his own weapon, blocking his attacker's strike. The Persian continued his attack fearlessly, lunging out between parries and turns. 

The force of the attack pushed Alexander back, making him stumble for a moment, then just avoiding a sharp edge as his opponent took advantage of his stumble. His attacker closed in again, pushing him back with another savage blow. 

Alexander turned and lunged his blade towards his attacker, who barely ducked under the weapon. Several parries. A hard blow forced Alex back again, then in a flash his attacker moved forward, slamming an elbow into the king's chin. Alexander stumbled and fell, hitting the ground with a thud, facing down in the sand. 

A chuckle sounded behind him. He heard his opponent step closer. Felt him step closer. "You will defy my lord no more." A voice whispered, then the shifting of air as the Persian raised the weapon above his head for the final blow. 

With a yell Alex turned around and stabbed his sword forward. The metal sliced through flesh, digging deep into his attacker's stomach. The sword the assassin had been holding clanged as it fell on the ground. The man stumbled back, glaring at Alexander with wide eyes, then he fell backwards, leaving Alexander lying on the ground, the blood covered sword clinging in his hands. 

Alexander scrambled to his feet. Footsteps closed in on him as his two guards caught up to their king. They halted as they saw Alexander standing in the small clearing, still holding the sword as he towered over the body of his attacker. "My liege?" Mattheus asked softly, taking a step closer. 

A thundering of hooves suddenly filled the air and a large dark horse came bursting into the clearing, screeching to a halt. More hooves sounded in the distance. 

Xena jumped off Chilon's back, then turned. Her eyes focused on the still form, lying sprawled on the earth, then they raised to meet brown eyes, that silently met hers. 

The warrior slowly walked over to the young king. "Alex?"
The king ran a shaking hand through his blond hair, leaving streaks of red across his forehead. "I. I tried to keep him alive Xena, but" 

Xena just pulled him into an embrace. "Don't worry about it, I'm just glad you're safe."
Alexander nodded, then straightened. "Two down" He muttered softly, staring at the still body pensively. Then he turned and faced the two guards that were standing quietly at the edge of the clearing. "Mattheus, take care of the trash for me, will ya?"
The guard gave him a nod. "Of course, my king." 

Then his brown eyes turned back to Xena. "Let's go."
The warrior just turned and walked over to Chilon, who was silently standing a little way off. She pulled herself into the saddle, then extended a hand down to the young king. "I'll give ya a lift."
Alexander smiled, then grabbed onto the hand and was pulled up behind his friend. Chilon trotted off, slowly making his way over to the castle. 

They were both silent for a moment. Then Xena sighed and half turned in the saddle. "This wasn't your first kill, was it?"
Alex bent his head and shook it quietly. "No We we had a conflict with one of the neighboring towns a few years back. They were threatening the farms and small villages around Pella. Father's army was called on to defend them He send me" 
Xena looked into the distance quietly and shook her head. "I can't believe he did that"
"My father was a good man Xena, but he was also one who knew what this world is about. There are gonna be battles. Wars. Being a king is about defending your people in every way you can. He wanted me to know that" 

"We were by far the greater force of the two so we just road in there, full of confidence. They attacked us from the side. I ordered the troops to circle them. Soon they were defenseless." A short silence. "I killed 21 people that day."
Xena bent her head. "Alex" 
"It hurt, at first I cried for days But I knew that the men I'd killed had murdered poor defenseless villagers I'd had reason to defend my people against the threat these men posed" 
"Yes, you did" Xena agreed quietly. 
"But I wanted to avoid further conflict." Alex continued quietly. "So a few days after the battle I rode my forces to my rival's castle. I dropped the head of his lieutenant at his feet and ordered him to surrender now, or suffer the consequences." 
Xena's wide eyes blinked as she gave him an incredulous look. 
Alex grinned. "I knew he'd surrender Xena. Maltus is a coward, he sends his men out to do the dirty work, but if you confront him personally he'll cower and admit defeat. He did and hasn't bothered us since."
Xena nodded, quite impressed. "Effective." 
"It turned out well." Alexander agreed, as Chilon slowed as they neared the castle walls. The stallion stopped and Alexander jumped off. "Thanks for the lift." He grinned. 
Xena hopped off as well, handing Chilon to one of the stable boys who came running over. "No problem. I was heading here anyway."
"Gabrielle will be happy to see you. She seemed bored"
"If there's one thing Gabrielle can't do it's sitting still." Xena chuckled, as they made their way into the castle. 
"I'm gonna go take a bath." Alex commented, walking towards the bathing room. "You gonna join me for diner Xena?"
Xena nodded. "I'll see if I can spare some time in my busy schedule." She chuckled, then headed up the stairs. 

Gabrielle looked up as a knock sounded on her door. "Yeah?"
The door opened and Xena stepped in quietly. 
The bard smiled. "Hey." She said cheerfully. 
"Hey." Xena replied as she crossed the distance between them. "How's things?"
"I am so bored." The bard stated. "I read 'Know your Persians' Part I, II, III and IV, I know all the Persian myths by heart now as I've read them all about 3 times and I've been trying to figure out that Persian scroll you gave me, but I couldn't make sense of it"
Xena chuckled as she picked up the scroll Gabrielle was talking about and unrolled it. "It wasn't that hard."
"Xena, it made no sense what so ever. It was about dead people walking into towers and then flying like vultures or something" 
Xena burst out laughing. "Well, at least you got 3 words right."
Gabrielle gave her an angry stare.

Xena muffled another chuckle, then settled down on the bard's bed, placing the scroll so both of them could read it. "You see this word? That's from the verb 'to carry'. So it says. "And death is to be carried into the Towers by the two that have been chosen. And the body will be brought to the highest point of the tower, where it will be laid down on the open space until the vultures come. Only when there is nothing left of the flesh, and only dry bones remain, will the chosen two return to collect the bones and bury them in the tower."
"Wait a second." Gabrielle interrupted. "You're saying these people let the vultures eat their dead?"
"Uhuh." Xena nodded. "Persians believe death equals Angra's victory over the human spirit. Here.." She said, pointing to a piece of text. "If the man has lead a righteous life, his soul will find piece in the heavens above by the grace of the great god Ahura Mazda. If he has not, both his soul and body will be taken over by the great evil, Angra Manjoe." She translated. "You see, the good soul will be saved, but in both cases Angra will take possession of the flesh. That's why they don't bury their dead, then the body will still contain the evil of Angra and will curse the ground."
"Right" Gabrielle stared at the text pensively. "That's interesting.. I've never heard of anything like that before"
"Me neither." Xena agreed. "That's why I figured you might want to read it And it even goes so far that the people who have been in contact with the body will have to go through a great cleansing ritual. The carriers of the dead are even completely excluded from society, so there is no risk of passing on bad stuff." 
"That sounds like a lousy job" Gabrielle muttered
"Uhuh." The warrior agreed, rolling the scroll back up and placing it back on top of the pile. "So how's that wound doing?" She asked as she stood and pulled the covers off Gabrielle's stomach. "That's looking better." She stated looking at the wound, then pulling the covers back up. "It's starting to close See what a bit of rest can do?"
"Yes doctor Xena." Gabrielle muttered, rolling her eyes.
The warrior chuckled and settled back next to her patient. "Hey, you know I'm only doing this to make sure you're OK."
The bard smiled and squeezed the warrior's knee softly. "I know Thanks for being concerned Xena I know I've been really annoying the last couple of days, but I do really appreciate you taking care of me You know that, right?"
Xena gave her friend a smile. "I know And I know if I'd been in your boots, I'd have been far more annoying than you've been. So you're forgiven." 
Gabrielle grinned. "Gee, thanks" 

They were quiet for a moment. "So, how's your spy hunt going?"
Xena literally slapped herself against the forehead. "Damn, I completely forgot. We've got number 2." 
"We do?" Gabrielle said wide eyed, sitting up. "When did this happen?"
"About a quarter of a candle mark ago."
"And you already forgot! Xena, we're gonna have to start training your short term memory here" Gabrielle joked
Xena stuck her tongue out at the bard, who chuckled in response. "Anyhow, he's dead." Xena continued, then fell silent for a moment. "Alex killed him." 
"Alexander?" Gabrielle asked, a bit shocked. "But" 
"One of his guards turned out to be one of the assassins. He tried to kill Alex in his room, but failed and then tried to make a run for the woods. Alex followed him, they fought and Alexander killed him in self defense." 
"Wow" Gabrielle murmured, quite taken aback by the story. "Is Alex doing OK?"
"Yeah, he's fine He's killed before He's hurting, but he can handle it" Xena stated, concluding this from the short talk the two of them had had. 
"Good." Gabrielle said quietly, leaning back in her pillow again. "So that's two down, one to go, huh?"
"Yeah." Xena confirmed. "I think the last one's gonna make a run for it He's gathered his information. He's probably more concerned with informing Xerxes about me than with any more assassinations now" 
"What makes you think he knows you? Maybe the Persians have never heard about The Warrior Princess I doubt Xerxes spewed out all the stories about how you crushed him in several battles"
Xena thought about this a moment. "No, probably he doesn't know exactly who I am But if he tells Xerxes that two of his best assassins were defeated by a leather clad warrior woman with a round killing thing, I'm pretty sure Xerxes will put the pieces together."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah, you're pretty much one of a kind huh?"
"Yeah." Xena muttered with a wry grin. 
"Oh, leather, that reminds me." Gabrielle suddenly said, tapping her head. "Alex told me Nicias said that the armor is ready."
"Great I'm curious what kind of magic the old guy made me this time." Xena smiled. "He can do some amazing stuff with simple iron and bronze"
"I'll say" Gabrielle agreed. "That sword he made you was amazing."
"Yeah, it's really comfortable too, has a great grip"
"I bet." Gabrielle smiled, then fell silent again. "Alex also informed me about something else."
The warrior cocked her head at her friend. "What?"
"He uhm He made up a plan traveling south to Persia" Green eyes looked into pale blue ones. "It's passing Amfipolis."

Xena blinked. "I'd forgotten about that" She said quietly, glancing at the floor. 
"I I told Alex you might wanna detour. He's OK with that It's up to you"
"Mom will be surprised to see me marching home with a ten thousand men army." The warrior continued, not even having heard Gabrielle's words. "I bet they'll love to see me again."
"Xena" The bard said quietly, placing a hand on her friends shoulder. "Listen to me, OK? You don't have to. I told Alex we can just circle around. It'll only take an extra day or so. We"
Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow. "You sure?" 
The warrior nodded softly. "I'll go and say goodbye to mom I owe her that much..."A deep breath. "But I don't want to camp too close, or accept any of their supplies unless it's paid for"
"Of course not." Gabrielle assured her, giving the warrior's shoulder a light squeeze. 
Xena gave her friend a smile. "Thanks for letting me choose Gabrielle, I appreciate it."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Don't worry about it There's another thing though, that you'll have no choice in."
A dark eyebrow lifted. "And what might that be?"
"That you get some sleep right now."
Blue eyes rolled. "Come on Gabrielle"
"No buts." The bard stated simply, crossing her arms. "You've been up for almost 2 days now, you need to get some sleep."
The warrior mumbled some curses. 
"Hey, you get over to that bed of yours right now, or I'm gonna have to get up and strap you to the mattress myself."
"Oeh, I'm being threatened by a wounded bard without a weapon Now I'm scared"
Gabrielle waved a finger at her. "Watch it Warrior Princess. Weapon or not" She grinned, then tickled the warrior's side, making Xena jump. "I'm still very dangerous." 
Xena chuckled. "All right, all right, you win." A yawn. "I could use some rest really." 
Gabrielle patted the warrior's cheek. "Good girl." 
Xena shook her head, but stood and walked to the door that separated their two rooms. "I'll see you at diner, OK?"
"Deal." The bard confirmed with a smile. "Sweet dreams Xena."

The night passed quickly. Xena slept for a few hours, and joined the bard and king for diner, but left shortly after, together with Alex, to leave for the city borders. Gabrielle spent some time absorbed in her scrolls, then fell asleep, only to be woken the next morning by a soft knock on the door. Her eyes squinted against the bright morning light. "Come in." She muttered in a hoarse voice as she rubbed her eyes. 

Halys poked her head around the door. She saw the sleepy face and bit her lip. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
Gabrielle smiled. "You did, but don't worry about it It was time for me to get up anyway" She sat up, pleased as she noticed her wound was hurting a lot less already. "What's up?"
Halys shrugged. "Nothing much, just thought I drop in, see how you're doing."
"I appreciate the thought." The bard smiled, as she patted the chair close to her bed. "How are you doing?"
"Tired." Halys sighed, as she dropped into the seat. "Xena may know a lot about leading an army, but she slaves people to the limit I haven't slept for a full day I'm exhausted"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Well, just know she slaves herself off even worse."
"She doesn't show it though"
"It's the 'I'm one bad, tough as nails ex warlord' kinda attitude. Don't be fooled."
Halys chuckled in spite of her tiredness. "You probably know best Sometimes I wonder how you keep up with her Gabrielle "
"It isn't easy, believe me." A smile crossed the bard's lips. "But it's worth it. You probably won't believe this, Halys, but as far as I'm concerned, no one has ever been a more loyal friend to me than Xena."
Halys eyed her for a moment. "I believe that in your opinion, that's true." A sigh "And my mind knows, Gabrielle. My mind knows she's changed But my heart will never accept that Never."
"I know that." Gabrielle said softly. "And if I were you I'd probably act the same."
"I doubt it."
"I'm no saint Halys. And I can guarantee you that if anyone tried to hurt Xena, or Alex, or you for that matter, they'd pay I might forgive them eventually, but I'd never forget."
Halys stared at her commander quietly for a moment, seeing the determination behind the statement, then she smiled. "I don't doubt that, Gabrielle I don't doubt that at all."
"You're one of the few that doesn't." The bard sighed as she settled back a bit in her pillows. 
"Oh, you are so wrong there." Halys chuckled. "You haven't had much word from outside, have you?"
"Not too much." Gabrielle shrugged.
"Well, let's just say you've earned quite some respect in taking that knife wound, Gabrielle. And there's been stories circulating about you taking a poisoned arrow through the lung. 's That true?"
Oh Hades. "Well, it wasn't actually through the lung It sort of grazed it, that's all"
"So it's true?! Wow" Halys muttered, quite impressed. "That's really something I once had a poisoned dart in my throat, and lemme tell ya, it hurt like Tartarus And I got the medicines almost instantly, not a couple of days later"
"Well, it wasn't one of my favorite moments, that's for sure" A grin. "Though it did have it's good moments." Then the bard shrugged. "But I wasn't the brave one, you know It was Xena She defeated an entire army of Persians AND managed to get me the antidote She was the true hero."
Halys just smiled. "Depends on what you qualify as heroism." Then she rose and stood, stretching some sore muscles. "I'm gonna go get some sleep if you don't mind" A hand lifted as she rubbed her left temple. "I am so wiped."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Get going then I'll see you later Halys."
"Yeah, later Gabrielle." 

"Well, well, well, what have we here." A low voice rumbled against the stone walls of the prison cell. A dark haired man looked up and gazed into flashing blue eyes. 
The blue eyes turned to the guards for a moment. "Leave us."
The men saluted and strode off, closing the large wooden door behind them. 

Xena slowly lifted a key she was holding in her hand and turned it in the lock. She opened the door and stepped inside quietly. "Well, Persian Seems like you're in a bit of a jam, arentcha?"
Defying brown eyes glared up at her, but the assassin didn't say a word. 
"I've got some bad news for you Your other two friends have been caught."
The dark eyes widened for a moment, but there was no other reaction. 
Xena just smiled deviously. "One unfortunately got killed." She continued, feigning a compassionate tone. "The other is locked up and tied down though." Xena turned to face away from the Persian, drawing a dagger from her boot. "And you see, we only need one of you to give us information So that means I get to pick who to kill." She turned letting her dark side surface. "And I picked you." She informed the man, pointing the dagger at him and slowly stepping closer. 

The Persian swallowed and desperately tried to remain calm.
"You do realize who you tried to kill, don't you? That was my best friend I don't take kindly to people who hurt her, you see Makes me wanna hurt them back"A wicked grin crossed the warriors face as she traced the man's chin with the sharp point of her drawn blade "However" She then withdrew the metal and crossed her arms. "As I am a nice girl and all, I'm willing to give you another choice You tell me what I need to know now, and I'm willing to reconsider and spare you."

Brown eyes stared straight at her, then the man opened his mouth and several raspy Persian words were spit out.
Xena met his eyes quietly, then took a breath and quietly shook her head at the man. "You know, calling me a ruthless bitch and informing me you hope I may die drowning in my own blood is not really gonna improve your situation." She blithely informed him.
The Persian blinked at he, completely amazed. 
The warrior stared at him quietly. "I think your last statement can be interpreted as a sign you are unwilling to cooperate Let's see if we can do something about that, shall we?" In a flash two fingers pressed into his neck and the man grabbed for his throat, his breath now coming in heavy rasps. 
"You'll be dead in 20 seconds unless you start talking Now tell me." She hissed in a low voice into his ear. 
Blood streaked eyes looked into her own. "I will never betray my lord." He managed. 
"Too bad for you" Xena stated, turning away from the struggling Persian. 

She quietly counted to ten, then turned and in a fluent motion she smacked the Persian across the face, making him fall unconscious to the floor. She towered above him as she walked closer and bent down on one knee. "It is so tempting to just let you" She let out a low grumble, but then released the pressure points and walked away, locking the metal door behind her.


Gabrielle stared at her feet quietly, as they dangled above the stone floor. She'd tried to keep quiet, she really had But she was really feeling a lot better, and a small walk wouldn't hurt much, would it? Of course not, she cheerfully informed herself. "I'll need an escort though" She mused, realizing that she was in no condition to defend herself in case she might run into any more Persian assassins.

A knock on the door sounded and Esta's red head poked in. "Hey there." 
"Just the person I was looking for." Gabrielle cheerfully told her, as she slowly let herself slide of the bed. "You're gonna take me out on a walk." 
"Oh, am I now?" The Athenian smiled, then walked over to the bards side and offered a hand for the bard to lean on. 
"Thanks." Gabrielle smiled. 
"No problem Hey, Gabrielle, is Xena OK with this? I don't wanna get in her way you know" 
Gabrielle waved her off. "Don't worry. She told me yesterday the wound was looking much better and didn't tell me anything about staying in bed today." Well, that was all true, wasn't it 
"All righty, just tell me where to go then." Esta smiled cheerfully, walking over to the door and pulling it open, letting the bard exit before her. 
"Just a walk through the palace gardens would be nice." Gabrielle decided as she waved her guards off. "Don't worry guys, I'll be fine." 
A quick nod and a yes lieutenant' was her reply.  
"You doing OK?" Esta inquired as Gabrielle eased herself down the last step of the stairs. 
"Fine." The bard replied with clenched teeth. And she was, really. It hurt, but that was only to be expected. It hurt a lot less than it had two days ago though and the good feeling of finally stretching her legs again definitely overruled the few flashes of pain now and then. "So" She commented to the Athenian as they made their way towards the gardens. "Were you just here to say hi or was there any specific reason?" 
"Just saying hi." Esta replied. "Though I did wanna inform about this rumor I've been hearing about you taking a poisoned arrow in the heart." 
Gabrielle sighed. "It only grazed my lung." 
Esta gave her a respectful glance nevertheless. "Still, that's quite something. I had an arrow wound in my leg once, but one up there must me much more painful." 
"It wasn't a nice feeling, no." She grumbled, already brewing up some sort of way to get back at her chatty warrior friend. Then it suddenly hit her. "You know, Esta, did Xena ever tell you she died?" 
Esta's eyes shot open. "Huh?!" 
Gabrielle chuckled as she wrapped an arm around the Athenian. "Lemme tell you a story"

The king smiled as he rode his horse closer to where Parmenios was standing. "Morning Par." 
"Afternoon almost." Parmenios told him, as he held Buchefalos' reigns as the young king hopped off the horse. 
"How's things?" Alex inquired, as he took the reigns and tied his horse to a nearby tree. 
"Tiring." Parmenios mumbled, not quite being able to stifle a yawn. "I got some sleep in this morning, but that wasn't enough by far" 
"I'll make sure they change shifts early tonight, OK?" 
Par sighed in relief as he walked into the little camp he and his men had made. "Thanks." He quietly sat down on one of the logs, motioning for Alexander to sit down as well. "So.. uhm I heard bout the second Persian guy" 
Alex bent his head. "Figured you had I really tried not to kill him Par, I really did, but he left me no choice" 
"Hey, don't worry about it I know you don't kill unless you have to" A moment's silence. "I was just worried he didn't hit ya anywhere or something, did he?" 
"Nah, nothing bad." Alex smiled. "Couple of bruises, that's all." He said, indicating the dark mark on his chin. 
"Good" Parmenios said, patting the young king on the shoulder. "You know I'd hate to see anything happen to ya, right?" 
Alex smiled. "I know Par Thanks for the concern." 
"Don't mention it." 

Another quiet moment as the two men stared off into the woods quietly. "So, where's Xena?" Alexander broke the silence. 
Par shrugged. "Can never tell with that woman.. She rides through here like the wind, gives me some instructions and is off again She could be anywhere by now." 

"Well, unfortunately for you I happen to be right here." 
Parmenios' head shot up to stair into smirking blue eyes, then he glanced at Alex. "Oops." 
The young king chuckled. "Hey Xena Any news?" 
The warrior settled down next to her friends. "Nothing really. Every lieutenant counted their troops None are missing, so whoever our spy is, if he's a part of this army, he's still with us" 
Alex nodded. "We'll catch him somehow." 
Xena shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not As long as we keep close track on things and don't give m any chance to take off and inform Xerxes I'll be quite pleased." A breath. "I just went to ask our little Persian friend in the dungeon some questions. He wouldn't talk." 
"Too bad." Parmenios muttered. "Wasted effort." 
The warrior smiled. "Not quite." 
Two interested pair of eyes turned her way. 
"He made a bit of a slip up in his attitude I'm positive now there's definitely no more than 3 assassins" A grin. " And I really, really enjoyed myself scaring the living daylights out of him." 
Both men chuckled. 

Gabrielle had returned to her bed and was sitting on it's soft surface, a new scroll she'd just dragged along from the library resting on her legs. Esta had left a couple of candle marks ago to return to the border. And run to Xena to make her explain how the Hades she came back from the dead. Gabrielle chuckled.

And the chuckle grew louder as hard boot steps echoed through the hallway outside her door. 
With a loud crash the door smashed open and Xena strode into the room, crossing her arms as she faced the cheerfully smiling bard. "What did you think you were doing?" 
"What?" Gabrielle inquired in all innocence. 
"Don't give me the innocent look bard." The warrior warned in a growl. "With Esta's chatting skills I'll have ten thousand people after me tomorrow asking me to teach them how to rise from the dead." 
Gabrielle chuckled. "An eye for an eye Xena" 
Two eyebrows lifted. "Hey, you were the one that was asking for a better reputation. I'm being nice in making sure thousands of soldiers are in absolute awe of you, and this is my reward?" Xena gave her friend a hurt look. 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oh well I guess you are sort of right there But did you have to tell them about the arrow? Couldn't you have made up something else?" 
Xena shrugged. "I could tell them about you trying to save Terreis?" 
Gabrielle shook her head rapidly. "No, not that one" 
"Or stand up to well armed men completely unarmed to save the people in your village." 
"Nuhuh." Another shake. 
"Or when you defended my body when you thought I was dead. Or when you challenged Valeska Or" 
"OK, OK" Gabrielle cut her off. "I get your point all ready But no more stories about me, OK? These things get out of hand The last guy asked me if it was true I'd been shot through the heart by twenty poisoned darts after having been inflicted with several painful flesh wounds caused by the fifteen four headed monsters that attacked us before the Persians came." 
Xena chuckled. "Four headed monsters huh? What did ya tell him?" 
"That you took care of the 15 monsters, by tying them down with a rope and then swinging them around above your head before tossing them halfway across the Aegean." 
"Gabrielle." The warrior's low voice rumbled dangerously. Not impressing the bard very much, who just stuck her tongue out at the warrior. Xena shook her head and sighed, then turned serious again. "Esta told me you guys took a walk." 
Oh oh. The bard took a deep breath. "Xena, I was ready for it, really And I just had to get up and walk for a moment, you know I can't sit still for this long And" 
"Gabrielle" The warrior interrupted with a smile. "Don't worry about it, OK? It's all right." 
"Really." Xena assured her. "So, how is your tummy feeling?" 
Gabrielle shrugged. "Not too bad really It hurt going down the stairs, and a bit during the walk But it felt pretty good otherwise." 
Xena checked on the wound briefly which was really healing quite rapidly and smiled. "Looks good enough to me. You're off bed duty Gabrielle." 
"I am?" Was the delighted response. 
"Yup But I still want you to take it careful, OK. Take some guards with you where ever you go and take it slow You'll still need a lot of rest" 
"Sure, sure." Gabrielle waved her off, then pushed herself off the bed and leaned over, wrapping the warrior into a hug. Xena blinked. "What's that for?" 
"Just because I can." Gabrielle smiled, patting her friend on the back before pulling back and sitting down again. "You know, I've had a lot of visitors today." 
"You have, have you?" 
"Uhuh." Gabrielle confirmed. "They all came nagging at me because you were pushing them too hard." 
Xena crossed her arms. "I am not." 
"Yes you are Normal people sleep for about eight candle marks a day Xena." 
The warrior grumbled a reply. 
"I bet you could use a hand out there scouting a bit It'd give some other people a bit of rest" 
Xena finally caught on to where+ E@$@=JфbRP^IHqP@Eֶp\J׺xͫ^!`L@TZ^8[c`cc0lv "If something hurts you'll tell me right?" 
A sigh. " Yes Xena, for the sixth time, I really will let you know" A short silence as Gabrielle watched the sun spread streaks of red across the horizon. "It's beautiful out here." 
"Yeah, it is quite nice." Xena agreed, pulling Argo back from a short trot. "So what's the drill?" 
Xena smiled. "The drill' is to start off at the top of this hill and then circle past the various outposts. We'll ride past Alaran first, then Ptolemaios, Esta, Filos, Kataran, Par and Alex will probably at Halys' spot. Some of the other lieutenants are running patrols through the woods and the planes in the south." 
"Right." Gabrielle nodded. "Well, if we have so much ground to cover We might as well" 
The rest of the bard's words were lost as she pushed Chilon into a canter. 
"Gabrielle!" Xena yelled after her as she nudged Argo forward. "Take it easy, remember?" 
A laugh up ahead was her only response. 
"Hey Alaran" 
The lieutenant turned in a flash at the familiar voice. "Gabrielle?" 
The bard smiled as she slid of Chilon's high back, flinching as she hit the ground. "Yup, it's me Thought I'd stop by and say hi." 

Alaran was going to reply but the thundering hooves of another horse made him look up to watch Argo make her way into the clearing. 
Xena pulled the mare to a stop and hopped of the horses' back. She turned to give the bard a dark stare. "We're heading straight back right now." 
Gabrielle just looked at her, pouting, eyes blinking sadly. 
Xena managed to keep her face serious for about two seconds and then caved in helplessly. "Oh, all right, but if you pull another stunt like that we go straight back to the castle you hear?" 
The bard grinned. "What ever you say Xena." 
"Yeah, right." The warrior grumbled, walking over to the small fire that was burning brightly.  

Alaran chuckled. "How do you do that?" 
Gabrielle smiled. "What can I say It's a gift." She chuckled, then patted the lieutenant on the shoulder. "So, how are you doing? Getting enough sleep?" 
"No." Alaran stated simply. "But I don't mind really it's been a while since I really tested my reserves. It's good knowing I still have some left, you know?" 
"Yeah, well, don't push yourself on Xena's behalf, OK? You have no chance on keeping up with wonder woman over there." 
Alaran chuckled. "I sorta figured that out already It's good to see you up and about Gabrielle. How're you feeling?" 
"Not bad really I'll have to take things slow" 
"Which she isn't doing" Xena helpfully added from her spot by the fire. 
"But..." The bard continued, giving her friend a look. "I'm sure I'll be fine in a few days" 
"That's really good to hear." Alaran smiled. "But take it easy, OK? I think we all got your point. No more showing off, please?" 
Gabrielle laughed. "I'll try not to." 

"Lieutenant!" A voice sounded from a bit off and one of the soldiers came trotting over. It was Michael, the guard she'd spoken to a few days back. He walked over and saluted. "Good to see you well." 
"It's good to feel well, Michael." She smiled at the boy. "How've you been?" 
"Pretty good." He informed her. "It gets tiresome staring at trees, but we won't rest until we catch all three of the bast Persians." He corrected himself. "They'll pay for trying to attack our commanders." 
Gabrielle smiled, and patted him on the shoulder. "Well, don't push yourself too hard, OK? We'll need you fit and healthy when we leave Pella." 
He gave her a respectful nod, then stepped back a pace. "I need to get back to my post. It was nice seeing you Gabrielle." 
"You too. Good luck Michael." 
The boy gave her another nod and taped his chest before walking back into the shadows. 

Xena chuckled, then walked past Gab, patting her on the shoulder. "Who has the loyal followers now, huh?" She whispered in the bards ear, then walked over to Argo, who was standing a little way off.  
Gabrielle gazed at the warrior's back, then sighed and turned to Alaran, giving him a hug. "See you later Alaran. Take care of yourself." 
"I will" 
The bard walked over to Chilon and, with some help from Xena, mounted the stallion. Xena then pulled herself on top off Argo and nudged the mare in the flanks. "Get some sleep OK?" She directed at Alaran, who just grinned and gave the warrior a salute before both horses trotted off towards the next post. 
They passed another few outpost, before Xena suddenly took a turn and headed into the woods. 
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, following curiously. 
"Nice spot." Xena mumbled, ducking under an overhanging branch. 
They rode on through thick foliage for a while, then all of a sudden the line of trees ended and they entered a small clearing. 

Xena hopped off Argo's back and let the horse go to roam free, then walked over and helped Gabrielle dismount. 
The bard slid off her stallion's back and landed on the soft, moss covered ground. She looked around the clearing, seeing nothing of particular interest. "So, what so special about this place? I don't see anything" She saw Xena pointing skyward and let her eyes drift up to see a multitude of stars sparkling at her. 
"This is the best spot in all of Macadonia for sky gazing." Xena said softly, looking up as well. "I found it all those years ago, and it hasn't changed one bit." 
"Wow." Was all Gabrielle was able to get out, as she settled down on the moss. "That's beautiful They're so bright here" 
"Yeah." Xena smiled, settling down as well and placing her hands under her head as she lay down. Gabrielle took the time to let her slightly tired body get back up to speed, as they both lay quietly staring up at the stars. 
Xena let a smile cross her face. "Where?" 
"There, look" Gabrielle said, lifting her hand and pointing at a couple of stars. "See? That's the tail, and that's his head." 
"Gabrielle, that doesn't even slightly resemble a dolphin" 
"What does it look like than?" 
Xena eyed the stars silently. "Crossbow." 
The bard sighed audibly. "Xena, did you place your order for that cartload of imagination yet?" 
"Well, it is! Look, there's the wood, there's the string and that's the arrow." The warrior stated, tracing patterns in the sky. "See, the arrow even has feathers" 
"That is not a crossbow" 
"Says who?" 
"Says me." Xena looked at her friend and slowly raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle stared back defiantly, then mimicked the look. 

The warrior chuckled, then wrapped an arm around her friend. "You're getting quite good at that." 
"Learned from the best." Gabrielle responded, pillowing her head on the warrior's shoulder. They were silent for another few breaths. "Hey Xena?" 
"Do do you think the stars are the same? In Persia I mean" 
The warrior didn't reply for a few moments but just when Gabrielle figured she wasn't going to reply at all, Xena's low voice spoke up. "I don't think so" 
"I guess that means we'll have a lot of new patterns to find when we cross the border huh?" 
The warrior looked down at the blond head tucked against her shoulder and smiled softly. "Yeah yeah, I guess it does"

Part 5

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